Tesla Safety at Center of Trial Over Fiery, Fatal Crash in South Korea

In an upscale area of ​​Seoul two years ago, a white Tesla Model X crashed into a parking lot wall. A fiery accident killed a prominent lawyer – a close friend of the president of South Korea.

Prosecutors charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blames Tesla.

Choi Woan-jong, who made a living by driving drunk people home in their cars, says that the Model X went out of control on its own and that the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.

A criminal trial set to begin in South Korea hangs over questions about the safety of Tesla’s vehicles, at a time when the EV maker faces a barrage of lawsuits and increased scrutiny from regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a private driver, or what is known in Korea as a “substitute driver”.

He says he is suffering from mood swings and depression ahead of a lawsuit that puts his credibility with the world’s most important car manufacturer on the line.

“When I wake up, I feel abandoned, I’m floating alone in the middle of the sea,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after a punctured intestine.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment about the crash and Choi’s lawsuit. A lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-geun, who owns the car that died in the crash, declined to comment.

Choi’s case has drawn the attention of some South Korean security advocates who want to change a provision of a free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from local standards.

For example, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean laws that require at least one front and rear seat door to have a power window because the US-South Korea free trade agreement exempts automakers selling less than 50,000 vehicles from the country’s safety regulations. . .

Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, registration data shows.

Park Keun-oh, chief of the Korea-US FTA division of South Korea’s trade ministry, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with US safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical support latch. Such cables allow the doors to open even when the car has no power.

Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment on the trade agreement or regulations.

Prosecutors said Choi floored the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul building, hitting 95 kph (60 mph) before crashing. He denies that, saying that the side mirrors of the car started to roll up without being ordered just before the car sped off on its own.

“It was as if the car was washed away by a storm,” said Choi who said he has been driving for more than 20 years and has experience driving Teslas.

The automaker provided prosecutors with the details of the Model X it had delivered before the crash, the judge said at the first hearing. The defense team has asked to see the information and is waiting for the court to release it.

Choi and his lawyer want to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design limited firefighters’ efforts to rescue Yoon.

Tesla’s battery caught fire after the crash. The car was engulfed in smoke and flames, according to firefighters and a video of the incident, taken by firefighters and viewed by Reuters.

Choi escaped through a broken window on his side. Firefighters were delayed in extricating Yoon from the backseat, because the Model X’s electronic doors failed to open from the outside, Dec. 31, 2020, a fire department report reviewed by Reuters shows. The report did not say how long the recovery was delayed.

Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters pulled him out of the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not publicly disclosed.

Judge Park Won-gyu said he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles will be tested at trial. Manslaughter is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Burning place

An investigation by the responding fire station found that the battery failure delayed emergency response by disabling the seat controls, preventing firefighters from repositioning the front seats to reach Yoon, according to a fire department report.

The power outage made it impossible to “find a (rescue) site,” the report said.

A fire station representative declined to comment.

The report says the Model X’s exterior door handles, which are electronic, did not open from the outside as the battery died. It also says that firefighters were unable to pull Yoon from the car because they were unable to move the front seats after the battery died.

Video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to pry open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They finally broke the front window and pulled Yoon out of the car 25 minutes after the emergency call came in, according to the photo and fire department report.

Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) from on-board diagnostic systems for safety inspections in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea. regulators pressured Tesla to replace door handles and work with regulators.

TS noted that Tesla is not required by law to provide such data, but that all other foreign and domestic car manufacturers do.

Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access diagnostic data for their cars starting in October 2023.

“Tesla has become an icon of innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) also raise a lot of concern for customers here,” Park said, referring to cases where Tesla’s doors won’t open after crashes and collisions. free trade agreement provisions.

A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had not fixed what the group called “door features”. The group says it has collected data on about 1,870 complaints involving Tesla departments over the past four years. Information provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawyer, as well as TS, confirmed that number.

A consumer group said it had asked police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety after a fatal crash in Seoul, but police told them in May there was not enough evidence to proceed, according to their report, seen by Reuters.

In a June 29 letter to a consumer group, seen by Reuters, police said that while Tesla’s door wiring may have violated local safety standards, that consideration violated the terms of the Korea-US free trade agreement.

Tesla doors “may violate (local) laws, but it (Tesla) has no obligations to comply with local vehicle safety standards in accordance with the Korea-US free trade agreement,” the police letter said.

In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where the cause of an accident is disputed face the burden of proving that the car was at fault, said three legal and auto safety experts, and car manufacturers are almost never prosecuted for safety issues.

“Unless you’ve been through this, you’ll never know what it’s like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “substitute driver” in South Korea, who was involved in a Tesla accident in May almost identical to Choi’s, police records show.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, who was one of the few who attended all the hearings of Choi’s trial, says that the Tesla he was driving at high speed alone hit two cars in the underground garage, but was not seriously injured. The police said the accident was his fault because there were no problems with the car, but they did not charge him because the accident was minor.

Ahn said he has kept his job as a private driver, but refuses to drive Teslas.

Choi, unable to work and nearly broke, has moved into a 6.6-square-meter (71-square-foot) cubicle that he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by a government housing subsidy, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these difficulties, Choi takes a long view of Tesla.

“Obviously there is a process of making products perfect through trial and error. And I am destined to be a part of that process,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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